I frequently get critical e-mails from readers of this column who take things out of context. They think that just because I teach people to understand the Latino culture and encourage people to learn Spanish that I think all the adjustment should be one-sided. Nothing could be further from the truth!
I strongly believe that Latinos who come to the United States should assimilate into the culture. In this article I’ll tell you how they should go about doing this and how you can help them to make this transition. Now, don’t get me wrong on this count - I still believe that if you are going to hire Latinos or do business with them, it is only smart business to understand their culture and learn their language. One thing is for sure: I have never said anywhere that citizens of the United States should assimilate into the Latino culture.
OK, first off, what does it mean to “assimilate” into a culture? Once we understand this concept we can tackle the two main questions here. How should Latinos assimilate into your business culture? And how should Latinos assimilate into this great country of ours?
The word “assimilate” actually has Latin roots. In Spanish, the word is “asimilar.” We get our English word “similar” from this. The letter “a” in Spanish when it stands alone means “to,” so if you take this word “asimilar” and break it down, the meaning is “to be similar.”
So, to assimilate means to make yourself similar to the people who are already living in a certain place. It is important to remember that it does not mean to be exactly like the people already there; it means to make yourself similar. It means to appreciate and partake of the customs and cultures of the country you are now in.
Are Latinos doing a good job of this? Honestly, some are not, others are.
I have to admit that it must be frustrating for someone who has been born and bred in the United States and become accustomed to certain social norms and practices to sit back and watch people come into the country who do not have an appreciation for those norms. I don’t think, however, that Latinos are the only culprits here. There are many socially divergent groups who, if we are honest, have very strong agendas to change existing social norms and practices. Could it be that many people - including those born in the United States - have not assimilated? I think so.
One more thing here before we address our two specific questions. It is very important to remember that to assimilate into a company or culture does not mean that one cannot continue to appreciate and enjoy his or her own cultural background. The concept of assimilation is not mutually exclusive. Personally, I am completely assimilated into the American culture, but I still enjoy and primarily live within the Latino culture. These two things are not in conflict with one another. In fact, they make life richer and much more rewarding. I can easily move within both cultures. This is rewarding and I recommend that we should all be bi-cultural and bilingual. It beats the heck out of being mono-cultural and monolingual. As the famous 70s song so correctly points out, “One is the loneliest number.” My goodness, if you can open up the rest of the hemisphere, I just think it makes good sense to do so!
Assimilating Into Your CompanyOK, let’s face it - business functions differently in Latin America than it does in the United States. Yes, I admit, things are changing, but the fact still remains that business is much more socially driven in Latin America than it is in the United States, where business is dominated by the bottom line.
I remember several years back doing some consulting for a call center of a major department store. Managers at the company were frustrated because the customer service calls in Spanish were taking significantly more time than the English calls. Of course, time is money, so they wanted to shave off those minutes. We were able to shave off some minutes, but not near as many as they wanted because Latinos are just more social, even in business. We talk more, we ask about family more often, we make big deals over people’s children, we ask what country the other person on the other end of the line is from, etc. This company learned that Latinos are not like people from the United States.
Latinos who work for you should assimilate in the following three ways:
1. Work with the bottom line in mind.
2. Work in an organized manner.
3. Honor established chains of command.
These three things are time-honored American business traditions. The bottom line is everything for most American businesspeople. Hopefully, not at the expense of ethics, although this is one of the reasons we have had so many corporate scandals. When ethics are compromised for the bottom line, it creates a situation in which character and judgment become clouded, and eventually a storm takes place.
You should actively teach your Latino workforce the concepts of profit and loss, income and expense, cost of goods sold, etc. Many people in the labor force and even mid-level supervisors often have no true comprehension of these things as they relate to your business and therefore cannot appreciate your commitment to the bottom line. If you visually teach and demonstrate these things you will help your people to assimilate into your company philosophy more easily.
Face it - a laborer who crossed the border or who grew up in poverty here in the United States has very little conception for these concepts and probably views you as a rich American who most likely makes this huge profit and lives like a king.
Ah, organization, the hallmark of Latin America! You must teach organizational and time management skills to your people if you want them to assimilate into your company properly. You must show them how proper organization, jobsite neatness and time management can benefit them and the company.
We Latinos live in a more free-flowing culture than Americans. Authority in Latin America is typically not as authoritative as in the United States, so it is important for your people to understand the established chain of command in your business. Now, this takes some work on your part as well because far too many companies have set up the bilingual middleman as their point of communication with Spanish-speaking workers, and this is not chain of command at all - it is confusing and loyalties are really pulled in two directions. If you have read my columns or have heard me speak you know exactly what I am talking about.
Assimilating Into Your CountryYes, it is your country! You have every right in the world to be concerned about the well-being of your country. You have every right in the world to want people to assimilate properly into your country.
Remember that assimilation is a process, not an immediate event. You must be patient! I’ll say it again: You must be patient. It is not reasonable to expect that Latinos will or can assimilate immediately or as quickly as you would like. This lack of patience is where most of us are getting into trouble. Latinos impatient for their perceived rights have protested all over the country. It was my opinion at the time, and it still is, that this was very unwise, as it forced people who weren’t sure about their feelings about Latinos to make a choice. It forced people who were against them to become more militant and emotionally charged.
My call to you is to remember that assimilation takes time, and this is a two-sided coin. Both cultures, frankly, are handling this process impatiently.
At a minimum, Latinos should assimilate into the country in the following three ways:
1. Learn the English language.
2. Learn the American system of government and commerce.
3. Honor American holidays and traditions.
Yes, all Latinos should learn English. I don’t care if they live in the United States, Mexico, Central America, South America, the Caribbean or Spain. English is the language of the United States and it is the primary language for commerce in the world. Everyone should speak English. It is silly to not learn English from a practical standpoint. Learning English to at least a level of 50 percent to 60 percent of the proficiency of a native should be a requirement for becoming a citizen or a resident of this country. This article does not permit me to tell you how I think this could be accomplished, but at least I want you to know my true views on this.
If you remember the story of the Tower of Babel in the Old Testament, you will remember that when God wanted to confuse the people, he multiplied the languages. Let’s face it - if we can’t speak the same language, we can’t understand each other. As I said, I think all would reap great benefit from being bilingual. People in North and South America should speak both English and Spanish since a there are 40 million Spanish speakers in the United States and the rest of the Western Hemisphere speaks Spanish.
All Latinos who are legal in this country should understand the system of government and commerce in the United States. Personally, I think it is equally important to understand the system of commerce in this country as well as the system of government because in a very real way commerce moves this country. Systems of government and commerce are different in Latin American, and these differences need to be understood to assimilate into the culture.
We should all honor the major holidays and traditions of our country. Days like President’s Day, Martin Luther King Day, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas should all be appreciated.
I think you would be surprised to know that there has been and there continues to be a lot of assimilation taking place. You can see it everywhere if you look. Not all, but most Latinos want and try to learn English. You can clearly see that many Latinos are embracing the American system of commerce, as there is a strong developing middle class in the Latino community - something that does not exist in Latin America. There are even several magazines written in English that are targeted to the Latino community. Two of the most well known are Hispanic Business and Latina. If you go into any Spanish language bookstore in the United States, the largest section is always the section with English courses, dictionaries and language study guides. By the way, if you would like to help any of your Latino employees learn English, I have of an outstanding English program called Inglés Poderoso. Send me an e-mail at the address below, request some information about it, and we’ll send you back a full overview.
Assimilation takes time, my friend. Let’s stay calm and let’s stay realistic here. Let’s also remember that assimilating into a culture does not mean we have to throw away our native culture; it simply serves as the backdrop for the fabric of our lives. This background gives grace and color to our existence. I mean, after all, how many of you would really be happy without your local Mexican restaurant, Mariachis on Friday night and a few margaritas with Cuervo? We are blessed in this country to have the Latino influence; it brings flavor to us, but as we know, spices must be added to the soup in moderation or the taste can be overpowering. We Latinos need to remember this as well or we will continue to infuriate many of our hosts.